Abstract: Secretaries and Treasurers: Fraternal Orders and the Development of Bureaucracy in Nineteenth Century America

Pamela A. Popielarz


Many of the economic institutions of capitalism in the United States developed during the nineteenth century. These included rationalized bureaucracy, joint stock corporations, factories and mass production, managerial and administrative occupations, wage work, and banking. I address the topic of bureaucracy, using the lens of voluntary associations and focusing specifically on the most widespread associations for men in the nineteenth century: fraternal orders. I investigate how these seemingly tradition-bound organizations reflected and helped to reinforce the development of rationalized bureaucracy. The theoretical framing draws from new organizational institutionalism, which poses bureaucracy as a historically embedded cultural practice, rather than a timeless instrument of technical rationality. Focusing on the Freemasons and the Knights of Pythias, I study the elected officer roles of secretary and treasurer. My sources include constitutions and by-laws, proceedings of annual meetings, and texts of installation rituals, covering the history of each order in the nineteenth century. Job descriptions for lodge secretaries and treasurers demonstrate that elements of the Weberian ideal-type bureaucracy (division of labor, limited authority, written records) accrued over time within each order. In addition, the historical trajectory of control mechanisms imposed on secretaries and treasurers to curtail incompetence or opportunism illustrates the two institutional bases of bureaucracy: governance and management. Mechanisms based on a model of secretaries and treasurers as governance bureaucrats included limiting their terms in office and imposing oversight committees, while mechanisms treating these officers as managerial bureaucrats included compensation schemes and incipient job training. As it became common for lodges to incorporate and hold substantial financial capital and real estate, a new category of elected lodge officer appeared: trustees. These officers were tasked as business managers of their lodge’s holdings. Yet throughout the nineteenth century, fraternal orders remained committed to their mission of moral improvement through brotherhood and ritual. The resulting image is one of voluntary associations simultaneously engaged in preserving tradition and helping to produce modern bureaucracy.